Did you hear the one about the climate policy analyst? Or the polar bear who walked into a bar?
Climate change is not generally considered a source of amusement: in terms of comedic material, the forecast is an ongoing cultural drought. But perhaps campaigners have missed a trick in overlooking the powerful role that satire and subversion can play in social change. Could humour cut through the malaise that has smothered the public discourse, activating our cultural antennae in a way that graphs, infographics and images of melting ice could never do?
This is the challenge that a panel of British comedians, including Marcus Brigstocke – a seasoned climate humourist, will take up at an event on Tuesday evening hosted by the RSA and the Climate Outreach and Information Network in London (the event is fully booked but it will be streamed live online). Maybe laughing about something as serious as climate change is just another form of denial. But perhaps its relative absence from the comedy realm is another warning sign: despite decades of awareness raising, the cultural footprint of climate change is faint, fragile and all-too-easily ignored.
The first example of a climate-policy parody was probably the ‘Cheat Neutral’ project: a slick spoof of the logic of carbon offsetting whereby people could pay someone else to be faithful, giving them the opportunity to cheat on their husband or wife. And there have other good video mockeries – including one warning that wind farms will blow the Earth off-orbit – which have captured the comedy potential of bizarre debates about energy policy.
This year, Greenpeace teamed up with the surreal comedian Reggie Watts to promote the idea of a 100% renewably powered internet. There have been sporadic examples of climate change ‘stand-up’. And the ever-reliable Simpsons has been occasionally willing to engage.
But these are the exceptions that prove the rule: for the most part, climate gags are notable by their absence.
An ongoing challenge is the polarised nature of the climate debate, with climate scepticism closely pegged to political ideology. According to Nick Comer-Calder, of the Climate Media Net, getting people laughing is a good first step to getting them talking – even across political divides. One analysis found that major US satirists, such as Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, have given more coverage to climate change than many of the news channels – although admittedly, this is a pretty low bar to clear.
But while online ridicule directed towards climate ‘deniers’ (generally portrayed as either too stupid to understand the science, or as conspiracy theorists) may appeal to the usual crowd, its hard to see how this kind of approach will breach the political divide. After all, the feeling of being laughed at by a sneering, left-leaning elite is not appealing. One notorious attempt by the 10:10 campaign and director Richard Curtis at ‘humorously’ marginalising opposition towards environmentalism backfired completely. It turns out that most people don’t find graphic depictions of children’s heads exploding all that hilarious after all…
What’s required is for climate change to seep into the fabric of satirical and humourous TV programming, in the same way that other ‘current affairs’ often provide the backdrop and context for creative output. Jokes ‘about’ climate change can in fact be ‘about’ any of the dozens of subjects – family disputes over energy bills, travel and tourism, or changing consumer habits – that are directly impacted by climate change.
Its an interesting irony that while the ‘pro-climate’ discourse can often feel po-faced and pious, climate sceptics have wasted no time in parodying the climate community. The Heretic, a play by Richard Bean, built its dramatic tension around the conflict between a sceptical climate scientist and her cynical departmental head who is suppressing her data in order to keep his grants flowing. The characters are overdrawn and instantly recognisable. And, as a result, it works: it is good drama, entertaining, and laugh-out-loud funny.
While climate change itself is never going to be a barrel of laughs, we seem to be suffering from a collective lack of imagination in teasing out the tragi-comic narratives that climate change surely provides.
Thinking harder about how to plug climate change into our cultural circuits – not as ‘edutainment’ but simply as a target of satire in its own right – will be crucial in overcoming the social silence around the issue. The science-communicators don’t seem to be making much progress with the public: maybe its time to let the comedians have their turn.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010